First Experience with Mentally and Physically Challenged

The Summer of 1969 I was given  work-study as part of my financial packet at college. However, by the time it came through there was only one job left in the area close to my hometown. It meant I would have to either commute or live there as it was about a one hour to one and a half hour drive depending on the weather and the animals,through curvy mountain roads. It was in Boulder Montana at the School and Hospital for the Mentally Retarded. I took the job because I needed the money to be able to return to school in the fall. I lived on the grounds for the first month going home on the weekends. That was the year they decided to shift all of the institutions around. They no longer wanted mentally ill and mentally challenged in the same institute. Within a months time the institute went from a population of approximately 200 patient/clients to 1000. It put a lot of stress on an institution that was already working on a limited budget. The first two weeks we went through intensive first aid training preparing us for our assignments. Then our assignments were determined after the saw how we progressed during training. I was one of the lucky ones I was assigned to the hospital. Working in the hospital that summer I was faced with many challenges. Some nights I would work the non-ambulatory wards. Some nights I would work the children’s ward. Only once did I work surgery and post-op which I hated. The majority of the time I was in the children’s ward and worked from 10:00pm to 6:00am. I didn’t mind the shift however, we worked short-handed and it was more stressful because if something was going to go wrong it usually did while they were sleeping. There was only one RN on duty at night and we had been trained to give medications, take blood pressure and do all the basics. That summer I learned about tube feeding, Down Syndrome and many genetic disorders. I learned about the laws of abandonment, foster care, and adoption of disabled clients. I read many case files and spent hours learning about every possible situation that could arise. I lived in the dorm the first month and when I would wake up there was nothing to do so I would go to the hospital and help with feeding on the day shift. The food was horrible institution food. They usually had a pot of stew with no meat it in. Sometimes on good days there would be jello. The only time there were deserts were on holidays. Few parents or family members came to visit. For the majority life in the institution was the only life they knew. When tours were taken they were very careful to stay clear of the worst areas. On the grounds clients lived in cottages according to the disability. If they were violent they were in a special cottage. There was also a lock down cottage if someone had a breakdown and need to be isolated. These were horrible. They were empty rooms with a mattress on the floor. There was nothing left in the room that they could get hurt with. They had an isolation room with padded walls. This was a summer that I saw everything and learned that nothing in life would surprise me. After the first month I started commuting with another co-worker who drove everyday. I found the drive relaxing after a stressful night. It was that summer that I decided to switch my major to special education. Later on I will share stories of specific situations that I dealt with. This was the beginning of my life’s career and what would start my advocacy for those with disabilities. I don’t believe in institutions and no one deserves to live in such a place. It worries me now as I see budgets being cut and Medicaid being cut. History has a way of repeating itself. I don’t ever want to see it go back to such medieval times and horrors of what I saw at the impressionable age of eighteen.  This will be the beginning of a future book on working with those with disabilities. I hope you have enjoyed what you have read so far and will come back for more.


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